A Inuk filmmaker says she is finally ready to release her film to wider audiences after years of being hesitant to screen her documentary on traditional Inuit tattooing to non-Inuit audiences for fear of cultural appropriation.

Six years ago, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril finished her film Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. The documentary is an intensely personal and emotional exploration born of Arnaquq-Baril's desire to root herself in her traditions and reconnect with her ancestors.

What she didn't expect was that she would become the go-to expert on Inuit tattooing, for both Inuit and non-Inuit.

"I don't want to be seen as the person who is controlling who can get [Inuit tattoos] and who cannot, it's not up to me, but I can make it much, much easier for non-Inuit to access our history and our knowledge by putting this film out there, so I hesitated," said Arnaquq-Baril. 

Through interviews with elders across Nunavut, Arnaquq-Baril's film describes how the practice of tattooing women, which she says used to be nearly universal, was all but stamped out in just one generation as a result of the concerted efforts of Christian missionaries.

Arnaquq-Baril says the cultural significance of Inuit tattooing is great, often marking the maturing of girls into womanhood, but she also says it's "fragile" and that non-Inuit copying the tattoo designs would be disastrous for Inuit trying to reclaim their culture.

'A physical embodiment of our culture'

Dion Kaszas, a member of the Nlaka'pamux Nation from interior British Columbia, is a professional tattoo artist, a cultural practitioner and is doing his masters thesis on how to revive indigenous tattoo traditions.

Dion Kaszas

Dion Kaszas, a member of the Nlaka'pamux Nation from interior British Columbia, is a professional tattoo artist, a cultural practitioner and is doing his masters thesis on how to awaken sleeping indigenous tattoo traditions. (Wes Wilson)

"Indigenous tattooing and the revival of indigenous tattooing is happening on so many amazing levels throughout the indigenous world," he said.

Kaszas said many indigenous peoples use tattooing as a form of political resistance while others who have been displaced from their homelands tattoo themselves as a way of reconnecting to their heritage.

"[Tattoos are] a physical embodiment of our spirituality, a physical embodiment of our culture, a physical embodiment of who we are," he said.

Reclaiming indigenous design

‚ÄčIn March of last year a group of Indigenous women launched a campaign called ReMatriate. The campaign started as a response to cultural appropriation on the fashion runway but has since grown to encompass a larger mandate of representing Indigenous woman in an empowering way.

Kelly Edzerza-Bapty

Kelly Edzerza-Bapty is one of the co-founders of ReMatriate, a campaign that started as a response to cultural appropriation on the fashion runway but has since grown to encompass a larger mandate of representing Indigenous woman in an empowering way. (ReMatriate)

"There is still a certain amount of shaming that happens to indigenous women and our cultures," said Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, one of the co-founders of ReMatriate.

"So we decided we had to take action and show authentic representations of true indigenous textiles, fashions and regalia and us owning our culture."

Filmmaker Arnaquq-Baril said she is inspired by ReMatriate and what she called an explosion of Inuit women now getting tattoos.

"Now that I can't count all the tattooed women on one hand, I am less afraid to show the film to non-natives," Arnaquq-Baril said.

"What I am going to try to do with the film now is that when I show it, explain how important it is for Inuit to reclaim this tradition and that we are given some time to enjoy this resurgence."